As I write this, around 35 teachers from Shanghai are heading back home after 2 weeks teaching Maths in our primary schools. In our Maths Hub, around 250 teachers took time out of their classrooms to watch and unpick the mathematical content of a KS1 or KS2 lesson. Combined with a similar-sized group that came in December, maybe 6000-7000 teachers in England have had this opportunity. It’s been a significant undertaking. Now is a good time to reflect on where we go next and ask the question – was it worth it?

Very good feedback was received from the teachers that came to watch our lessons. Maybe the audience was self-selecting. Maybe those teachers who have years of experience and have “seen it all before” stayed away. Or those who have a strong philosophy about how we should teach children maths which conflicts with their perception of what goes on in Shanghai classrooms didn’t fancy it. But those who came with an open mind and a sensible level of expectation were inspired and took something away. We didn’t see perfect lessons. Language was sometimes an issue but less than you might imagine. The Chinese teachers were not used to teaching the wide range of attainment we see in our classrooms. There was no differentiation in the lessons. There were usually plenty of adults on hand to help the children, something which is clearly unrealistic in the normal run of things.

What we did see were some carefully constructed lessons from practitioners who focus entirely on Maths teaching. In a system that asks its teachers to teach 2-3 x 35 minute lessons per day with plenty of time for professional development, that regularly has 10-15 teachers observing and unpicking lessons, it is not surprising that these teachers know their stuff! We saw the micro-progression building up a solid understanding of underlying concepts. We saw the experience of a mastery approach that has been in place for many years and has percolated down to thousands of teachers. For an excellent description of some of the techniques used read Tim Brogan’s post here.

So a good experience for those involved. But that doesn’t answer the question “was it worth it?” I don’t know the full cost of the exchange. I guess I could do an FoI request to find out, but I’m estimating £3000 x 75, so about £225,000 for the trip. But the bigger cost was 70 odd teachers being out of their classrooms for 2 weeks. It seems so hard to carve out enough time to see other teachers in our own schools, let alone travel half way across the world to watch excellent practitioners. In these times of budget cuts we should be grateful that there is this investment into Maths education. And it has given a real impetus to CPD for Maths. But I can’t help thinking that an alternative could be 700 teachers spending a day observing excellent practitioners in their local area. Or several thousand teachers having an extra hour to observe an excellent lesson in their own school. Would this have a greater impact on more children?

The good news is that this sort of “learning from each other” between schools is available through the Maths Hubs Teaching for Mastery programme. This provides schools (Primary and Secondary) with the opportunity to work with up to 6 other schools in their local area in a TRG – a group that meets regularly throughout the year to observe and unpick each others’ lessons as well as working together on lesson design and curriculum planning. The Maths leader from one of these schools will have received a year of training from NCETM and will be the “Mastery Specialist” but in reality this should be seen as a genuine collaboration between practitioners. The schools involved receive a reasonable level of funding via the Maths Hubs to cover the time the teachers are out of lessons. To find out more, contact your local Maths Hub.

We have gained a lot from this exchange, but I wonder if we are hitting diminishing returns to go for a fourth year in a row. There are now enough people around the country who have experience of what happens in Shanghai classrooms. The focus should be squarely on helping our teachers adapt what we have seen for the English classroom. To take the best bits and meld them into currently existing good practice. The need now is to provide more teachers with the time to undertake high quality collaborative lesson design and to learn from each other by observing each other. This is what really makes the difference in Shanghai and this is what will make the difference here.